Working in Big Law is all sharp haircuts, perfect teeth and snappy rejoinders – at least that is the picture presented by the TV show, Suits.  I must confess to this as a guilty pleasure for my family as we watch the weekly shenanigans of Harvey, Jessica, Mike, Louis, Rachel and Donna.  It would seem we are not alone – one of the most frequent dinner party/seminar/networking conversations that people have with me starts “Is working at a law firm really like Suits?”, closely followed by “Which one of your colleagues is most like [insert Suits name]?”

So is life in a big law firm really like Suits?  Our hours are certainly long on occasion.  There are some tight deadlines.  We did once have a difficult client.  It is not unknown for there to be some post-work martinis.  However, for the most part, the glamorous lifestyle enjoyed by Harvey, Mike et al, is replaced by a daily battle with South West Trains or some other equally dire train service, adding its own level of stress and anxiety every day even before you get to the office. Perhaps that is why you never see the characters commuting…

One area where Suits is true to life, not only for the legal profession but also most professional services, is that the job is undeniably stressful.  Season 5 has taken this one step further with the revelation that senior partner Harvey Spector (over Seasons 1-4 an outwardly supremely confident, talented and successful lawyer) has been suffering from panic attacks.  We are told that, reasonably true to life, Harvey chose to hide these panic attacks from friends and colleagues until finally he had no alternative but to disclose them – in this case, because he assaulted Louis, another partner at the firm.

Somewhat disappointingly, however, the show played up to Harvey’s “superman” persona by making the panic attacks related not to pressures of work but to personal traumas resurrected by the defection of his secretary to another partner within the firm.  However, the impact on Harvey’s work was real – he froze in meetings, was absent from the office without explanation on occasions and finally lost his temper during an argument and threw Louis through a glass table, the latter (for the avoidance of doubt) not being common currently in law firms.

Although obviously dramatised for television, the pattern will not be unfamiliar to many HR colleagues.  First of all, an employee starts to exhibit small changes in behaviour, then larger changes and/or mood swings.  The employee’s absences increase, whilst productivity decreases.  By the time it is eventually raised with HR (often forced out of the employee by circumstance, as here, rather than volunteered proactively when most might be done to help), the line manager often already feels that he can no longer have faith in the employee.  Similarly, the employee feels that his line manager has distanced himself and not supported him – positions are already becoming entrenched before anyone has had a chance to intervene.

In Harvey’s case, everything was “resolved” by his breaking down and admitting his panic attacks to Louis, thereby showing signs of weakness for the first time, followed swiftly by his getting back into his usual unflappable stride.   Interestingly, Season 5 concluded with Harvey agreeing to step down from the firm, one not very subtle subtext being that taking a step back in this manner has also contributed to a new found sense of inner peace (Harvey and inner peace not being words commonly seen together before now).

In real life, these situations tend not to be resolved so easily.  Once an employee who is vulnerable due to an illness (mental or physical) loses faith and trust in his line manager (and by extension, his employer), and/or that trust has been lost in him, it is very hard to rectify that situation. A cathartic weep is not really all it takes.

The firm seems not to have any HR department so perhaps we can hope to see a role for a forward thinking, crusading HR director in Season 6 (no doubt one with a sharp haircut and perfect teeth).  That might avoid our seeing Jessica, one of Harvey’s closest friends, berating his secretary for not knowing where he was when he was absent from the office rather than just asking Harvey direct what was going on.  The (as yet uncast) HR director would no doubt recommend a series of open and unthreatening conversations with Harvey to get to the root of his absence and anger management issues, and also suggest a visit to an occupational health provider if the absences continued.

So what can we take away from Suits, other than the fact that, sadly, real life at a professional services firm is rather less glamorous?  Firstly, even if (in fact, particularly if) you are Harvey Spector, you are not immune to mental health issues.  Secondly, should you suffer from them, there are warning signs which friends and colleagues can and should notice.  Thirdly, if you see those warning signs, don’t be a Jessica but just ask your colleague direct if he is OK.   A small and caring gesture that can go a long way.

Now, back to the question you have all been waiting for – which of my colleagues is in fact most like Harvey/Jessica/Mike/Louis?  You will have to attend one of our Employment Seminars to find out.